April 08, 2019
Yemen's Houthi Movement Can Still Be Split From Iran
Iran’s support for the Houthi movement in northern Yemen follows a sound logic as far as Tehran is concerned. But the movement’s usefulness to Tehran’s geopolitical ambitions does not guarantee its loyalty. The United States and its partners might still be able to reverse Iran’s pull on the Houthis.
Iran has cultivated the Houthis as part of Tehran’s effort to expand its regional influence through what it calls the Axis of Resistance. This Axis describes an informal Iran-led alliance of state and non-state actors opposed to Western and Israeli influence in the Middle East, as well as to America’s Arab partners. Members include Iran, Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah, and some Iraqi Shiite militias. Iranian officials now list the Houthi movement among other partners, and Houthi delegations have met regularly with others within the Axis of Resistance. Iran leverages this alliance to pursue objectives that include expelling the United States from the Middle East and establishing Iranian regional hegemony.
A limited investment in Yemen has yielded outsized influence for Iran on the Arabian Peninsula and in the Red Sea. Iran has provided the Houthis with media, political, diplomatic, materiel, and humanitarian support. Critically, Iran has transferred asymmetric military capabilities to the Houthis that have enabled them to threaten Riyadh -- and possibly Abu Dhabi -- as well as to disrupt commercial naval traffic in the Red Sea. Iran has also built indigenous capacity within Yemen to produce improvised explosive devices that could disrupt advances against the Houthis in the coming phases of the civil war. Iran has used the threat from the Houthis to pull Saudi focus from other theaters such as Syria back to Yemen, and to distract from Iranian gains elsewhere in the region. It is far from a given, however, that the Houthis respond to commands from Tehran.
The Houthi movement is not under Iranian control yet, and it will not take actions in Iran’s interest that run against its own. The Houthis probably remain more important to Iran than Iran is to the Houthis. The movement itself is not a monolith, and many of the supporters who joined the Houthis over the course of the civil war would probably reject Iranian outreach and possibly break from the Houthis themselves if they perceived a better way to secure their future. It is not clear where the core Houthi leadership stands on the Iran question. Separating the movement from Tehran will grow more difficult as time passes, but it is not impossible.
Interdicting the flow of Iranian materiel into Yemen could limit the Houthis’ asymmetrical attack capabilities -- though it would not eliminate those threats. The group’s longer-range ballistic missile attacks from Yemen into Saudi Arabia used weapons sourced in Iran. Tehran has also provided unmanned aerial vehicles to the Houthis, and it is not clear that these can be produced in Yemen. But the Houthis should be able to sustain shorter-range missile attacks, naval attacks, and landmine and IED attacks without Iranian support. These attacks are critical to the Houthis’ defense in Yemen.
The Houthis’ wartime requirements will continue to drive the movement closer to Iran. To interrupt that relationship, the United States could start by leading a diplomatic effort to resolve the underlying causes of Yemen’s civil war. The Houthis rejected the last Yemeni National Dialogue Conference, in 2014 – but so did many in Yemen’s south. They saw the outcome as painting a veneer of reform over the power structures that support elite interests. Critically, the Conference failed to produce an acceptable solution to how the Yemeni government would decentralize and how national resources would be distributed. The proposed six-region solution, and the manner by which this solution was reached, delegitimized the NDC process for some members of the opposition, including the Houthis. U.S. statements continue to call for Yemenis to respect the outcomes of the Conference. This ignores the protests of the Houthis and of Yemen’s Southern Movement, al-Hirak, against these outcomes. Current UN-led efforts leave the dispute unresolved. The United States and its partners might recognize the failures of the NDC and work to produce solutions acceptable to all Yemenis.
Washington should also encourage partners to develop or restore relationships with individuals who have chosen to support the Houthis politically during the civil war but who might not entirely believe in their cause. Houthi adherents might include members of the former ruling party still in northern Yemen and northern-based families and tribes who have calculated that their political prospects and futures were better with the Houthis than with the loose-knit coalition opposing them. Splintering the Houthi movement in this fashion could begin to diminish the group’s influence in Yemen. Reducing the Houthis’ strengths would increase the prospects of an acceptable negotiated settlement to the war and a political resolution in Yemen.